December 26, 2012

Back in March 2011, Randolph Azerof, also known as The Raven, posted a comment on a Virtually Speaking episode featuring UC-Berkeley Economics Professor Brad DeLong.  Brad recently referred to that comment, and Paul Krugman picked it up. Interestingly enough, this led to a fair amount of discussion among different members of the New Classical vs New Keynsian advocates.

Steve Williamson chimed in

Noah Smith rings some more changes.  (To his credit, several links in that post you should click through to. And read the updates.)

Brad’s Reply.

Oh, so this is why we’re rerunning, at Virtually Speaking, the original discussion


September 27, 2012

I decided it’s more important that you know what I was saying in the last note than that you figure it out for yourself*, because of time constraints. So I want to make sure you understand the distribution of the applicant population. In the general population, the distribution of talent** is presumed to be normal:

But the application pool is NOT Normal. It’s the far right hand tail of that distribution (excuse the sucky drawing skills):

But the application pool is NOT Normal. It’s the far right hand tail of that distribution (excuse the sucky drawing skills):

Harvard has the lowest acceptance rate (5.9% in the US,so we’ll use Harvard for our illustrations. Harvard has a class of about 2000 kids,which means the application pool is about 34,000. Now that’s a huge number, in one sense. But’s its a tiny fraction of your birth cohort’s 3.9 million (***—less than one percent, 0.87%.

So what the application pool looks like is the very far right hand tail of your birth cohort, about three standard deviations out, like the drawing. The typical (median) applicant doesn’t get in; the median is well to the left of the acceptance line. There are lots of applicants right around the acceptance line–and the really really talented kids (like the guy you know at one the elite colleges, for instance) are not typical, but rare, out on the far right tail of the applicant pool.

So if you’re not a long shot (and I don’t think you’ll find anyone who says you are) then you should not be misled by the low acceptance rate at the top Ivies. At worst you’re in that group that makes up 40-50 percent of the class that are just on the right side of the acceptance level or are just on the left hand side. In your case, your secondary characteristics (bilingual, time in Africa, European raised) mean that you’ll enrich a class more than someone with identical talent who happens to have grown up in Bergen County, instead of Maputo. Admission officers like a diverse class with kids of different backgrounds!

Finally, it is a HUGE mistake to think of the distribution of MIT’s class as being a bell curve with the genius guy you know there as the median student. First, it’s not a bell curve–it’s the far far far right hand tail of your cohort’s bell curve, so it’s more like a triangle. And, second, kids like him are on the far right of that curve.

In Major League Baseball, the same logic applies. The blue line in that case is called “the replacement level.” The guys just to the left are in AAA and the guys just on the right are on the bench in the majors, but are essentially interchangeable–a GM could replace a bench player with a AAA player without affecting the team’s performance.

As you think about optimizing the application process, I hope you’ll keep this in mind.


June 23, 2012

So Simpson wrote a mean spirited letter, including:

“If you can’t understand all of this you need a pane of glass in your navel so you can see out during the day.”

The respectful response said, yeah, well, we’ve read it and you’re wrong. And let’s have a debate on the facts.

Simpson agreed, at first…. but then he said, well, never mind.

And then the same young people shot down B-S surrogates.

There is a petition campaign, but I think the really interesting story is that the numbers took down Alan Simpson. We’ll see how Judd Gregg does with those same numbers.

SS Source material

June 17, 2012

This is the Social Security section of the summary of the Bowles-Simpson Moment of Truth document. These reforms are completely unnecessary. The way the law defines the Social Security program, it cannot contribute to the US debt, cannot become insolvent, and is scheduled to pay off all projected benefits until the mid 2030s, and 75% of the projected benefit thereafter, forever. That 75% of projected benefit is, by the way, more in real terms than the current recipient benefit.

The “deficit reduction” measures are 5.4 and 5.7, which raise the retirement age and substantially reduce the cost of living adjustment. The other elements work to make the program more redistributive, like a welfare program, rather than a social insurance program where pay-outs are actuarially tied to pay-ins.

Social Security Reform

5.1: MAKE RETIREMENT BENEFIT FORMULA MORE PROGRESSIVE. Modify the current three-bracket formula to a more progressive four-bracket formula, with changes phased in slowly. Change the current bend point factors of 90%|32%|15% to 90%|30%|10%|5% by 2050, with the new bend point added at median lifetime income.

5.2: REDUCE POVERTY BY PROVIDING AN ENHANCED MINIMUM BENEFIT FOR LOW-WAGE WORKERS. Create a new special minimum benefit that provides full career workers with a benefit no less than 125 percent of the poverty line in 2017 and indexed to wages thereafter.

5.3: ENHANCE BENEFITS FOR THE VERY OLD AND THE LONG-TIME DISABLED. Add a new “20-year benefit bump up” to protect those Social Security recipients who have potentially outlived their personal retirement resources.

5.4: GRADUALLY INCREASE EARLY AND FULL RETIREMENT AGES, BASED ON INCREASES IN LIFE EXPENCTANCY. After the Normal Retirement Age (NRA) reaches 67 in 2027 under current law, index both the NRA and Early Eligibility Age (EEA) to increases in life expectancy, effectively increasing the NRA to 68 by about 2050 and 69 by about 2075, and the EEA to 63 and 64 in lock step.

5.5: GIVE RETIREES MORE FLEXIBILITY IN CLAIMING BENEFITS AND CREATE A HARDSHIP EXEMPTION FOR THOSE WHO CANNOT WORK BEYOND 62. Allow Social Security beneficiaries to collect half of their benefits as early as age 62, and the other half at a later age. Also, direct the Social Security Administration to design a hardship exemption for those who cannot work past 62 but who do not qualify for disability benefits.


5.7: ADOPT IMPROVED MEASURE OF CPI. Use the chained CPI, a more accurate measure of inflation, to calculate the Cost of Living Adjustment for Social Security beneficiaries.

5.8: COVER NEWLY HIRED STATE AND LOCAL WORKERS AFTER 2020. After 2020, mandate that all newly hired state and local workers be covered under Social Security, and require state and local pension plans to share data with Social Security.

5.9: DIRECT SSA TO BETTER INFORM FUTURE BENEFICIARIES ON RETIREMENT OPTIONS. Direct the Social Security Administration to improve information on retirement choices, better inform future beneficiaries on the financial implications of early retirement, and promote greater retirement savings.


January 20, 2012

Elected Democrats no longer see themselves as representing their constituents. They see themselves as representing their donors. In the teeth of huge, well-organized grass roots opposition–hell, universal opposition, Democrats come down on the side of the MPAA and the RIAA. They’ll try to find some other way to take away our internet, trying to put the toothpaste of an open network back into the tube.
This is not even a question of stupid or evil. It’s stupid and evil.

MOULITSAS: It has been a shameful day. Now let me add that Ron Wyden, who was just on, if it wasn’t for him, this thing may have passed already. He was the first person in Congress to stand up against this and fight the way he has. He is the reason this is still being debated. That said, you have a bipartisan group of people who supported it. Today, Republican after Republican has backed out and abandoned support for SOPA and PIPA.

Democrats haven’t. They cling to this fiction that this thing can be fixed, and not only is it incredibly stupid, it’s incredibly tone-deaf. You are basically ceding a generation of Web-savvy, Web-immersed people who are obsessed with protecting what they see as their very birthright. And they are watching Republicans come out and see the light on this issue, while Democrats continue to cling to the Hollywood studios. It is unfathomable.

I’m embarrassed to be a Democrat, I’m ashamed and I’m angry. You couldn’t even begin to believe — because I believe that this legislation is an existential threat to the social Web — that’s Daily Kos, that’s Reddit, that’s Facebook — that’s anybody, any time you can interact online, this legislation threatens that ability to do so.

OLBERMANN: Yeah, that’s Red State, that’s all the other right-wing sites, as well. This is not a liberal thing.

MOULITSAS: It’s not. It’s liberal, conservative, greens, libertarians, people who don’t even pay attention to politics. I don’t think I have ever seen this much consensus around an issue.

Unbelievable. The Democratic leadership in the Senate is willing to throw a generation under the bus.

Influence by major donors isn’t new, of course. Henry (Scoop) Jackson of Washington was referred to as the Senator from Boeing. But, as with the Health Care Reform negotiations, voters don’t even have a seat at the table–especially among Democrats. Unless we in the rank and file can find a way to penetrate the Democratic primary system, we are doomed to a future of bad public policy–a neo-feudalist regime run by monopolists and their “elected officials.”

(Crossposted at I’ll be migrating back to there over the next month or so.)


December 21, 2011

Tom Friedman today:

As I never bought the argument that Saddam had nukes that had to be taken out, the decision to go to war stemmed, for me, from a different choice: Could we collaborate with the people of Iraq to change the political trajectory of this pivotal state in the heart of the Arab world and help tilt it and the region onto a democratizing track? After 9/11, the idea of helping to change the context of Arab politics and address the root causes of Arab state dysfunction and Islamist terrorism — which were identified in the 2002 Arab Human Development Report as a deficit of freedom, a deficit of knowledge and a deficit of women’s empowerment — seemed to me to be a legitimate strategic choice.

Tom Friedman then:

What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, um and basically saying, “Which part of this sentence don’t you understand?” You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we’re just gonna to let it grow? Well, Suck. On. This.[28][29][30] ..We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could. That’s the real truth…

This text is provided as a public service. The email address for the Times Public Editor is, for LsTE,


November 28, 2011

(By Stuart Zechman and Jay Ackroyd)

Last Thursday, the New York Times ran a story about Democratic support for restructuring Medicare as a premium support plan, as part of the austerity negotiations:

Members of both parties told the panel that Medicare should offer a fixed amount of money to each beneficiary to buy coverage from competing private plans, whose costs and benefits would be tightly regulated by the government.
The idea faces opposition from many Democrats, who say it would shift costs to beneficiaries and eliminate the guarantee of affordable health insurance for older Americans. But some Democrats say that — if carefully designed, with enough protections for beneficiaries — it might work.
The idea is sometimes known as premium support, because Medicare would subsidize premiums charged by private insurers that care for beneficiaries under contract with the government.

Of course, the Democrats all remain nameless, as do most of the “health policy experts.” These same people have been trying to drum up support for premium support as a means of cutting Medicare benefits controlling Medicare costs for years, mostly from Democrats predictably wary of how unpopular this would be. That’s why any policy discussion takes place in an atmosphere of anonymity, dishonesty and misdirection, using unrepresentative processes like the creation of unelected commissions or the establishment of a specially empowered SuperCommittee.

Centrist Democrats –the New Democrat Coalition, Democratic Leadership Council, Third Way, Progressive Policy Institute and the Brookings Institute– have been trying to get “Premium Support” legislation in front of Congress for at least a dozen years. It’s the other half of what the PPACA is designed to accomplish, to restructure what they regard as obsolete New Deal social insurance policy. The policy recommendations focus on “private/public partnerships” supplanting public sector programs, while messaging focuses on selling ideologically centrist, “market-based reform” to liberal Democrats.   They reassure movement liberals by reciting platitudes that seem to affirm Medicare’s sanctity with promises to “strengthen” the program for the 21st century. This has been going on since the mid to late 90s.

For instance, New Democrat John Breaux, chairing President’ Clinton’s Bipartisan Commission of the Future of Medicare,  introduced a premium support plan in 1999. In an Op-Ed in The Hill (pulled from the memory hole by Republican Congressman Tim Griffin), Breaux wrote:

With any restructuring approach, we must preserve Medicare’s entitlement and ensure that Medicare does not become a program just for the poor. I would like Medicare, in fact, to become a model for expanding health care coverage to all uninsured Americans. I believe a Medicare premium support system is the best way to achieve that end.

What exactly is a premium support model and what does my particular version do? Premium support means the government would literally support or pay part of the premium for a defined core package of Medicare benefits. This is not a voucher program but an alternative to the current system. Today, Congress micromanages Medicare and the government uses fee schedules and thousands of pages of regulations to set prices for specific services. My plan combines the best that the private sector has to offer with the government protections we need to maintain the social safety net.

I have proposed a premium support Medicare plan modeled after the health care plan serving nearly 10 million federal workers, retirees and their families. Like that plan, my reform plan would also guarantee that the government’s contribution keeps pace with health care costs.

This history makes it clear why it was so important for national Democrats, and especially Third Way partisans to differentiate their “premium support” from Paul Ryan’s “premium support,” as with Ezra Klein’s  interview with Henry Aaron, the Brookings’  Fellow who originally developed the premium support idea in 1995. It was crucial to centrist talking points to make the case that the GOP “Path To Prosperity” involved a voucher program, totally different from Aaron’s “premium support” plan. But, as this story from the Times makes clear, there are core elements among the centrists who dominate the Democratic party leadership committed to premium support under Medicare, core elements who are well aware that reducing Medicare benefits will be extremely unpopular.


October 6, 2011

Another day, another letter to the NYT Public Editor. I refer to:

I had gone down to Zuccotti Park to see the activist movement firsthand after getting a call from the chief executive of a major bank last week, before nearly 700 people were arrested over the weekend during a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge.

“Is this Occupy Wall Street thing a big deal?” the C.E.O. asked me. I didn’t have an answer. “We’re trying to figure out how much we should be worried about all of this,” he continued, clearly concerned. “Is this going to turn into a personal safety problem?”

from this Deal Book column:

Andrew Ross Sorkin has his way with NYTimes policies on anonymous sourcing in this column.

First, he demonstrates his complete disregard for NY Times rules. He grants anonymity to an incoming call. A bank CEO calls him up, and is apparently completely secure that he is (quoting Tim Russert’s testimony in the Libby trial) “presumptively off the record.” Here’s the official NYTimes policy regarding interviewing sources and anonymity:

In routine interviewing – that is, most of the interviewing we do – anonymity must not be automatic or an assumed condition. In that kind of reporting, anonymity should not be offered to a source.

It’s hard to think of a way to more completely flout this policy. That he can be a prominent NYT columnist, on one of the most important beats in the country at this time, and considers the anonymity rules as something he need pay no attention to, is really something David Carr might want to report on, if he worked somewhere else.

Consider this:

we who have sought out a source who may face legal jeopardy or loss of livelihood for speaking with us.

It’s hard not to laugh out loud. “We who have sought out a source” couldn’t be more directly opposite to how sourcing works here. Glenn Greenwald doesn’t exaggerate when he calls the anonymous CEO Sorkin’s assignment editor. The Times policy makes anonymous sourcing an extraordinary event. Sorkin’s (presumably passing through two or more editors) column makes it an absolutely routine part of his daily intercourse with sources.

And you know what’s really newsworthy here? The identity of the source. What bank CEO calls up the New York Times and dispatches a major columnist off to write a story? Shouldn’t the Times get someone on that? Isn’t it in the public interest to know which money center bank (which is how I read “major”) has this kind of influence over Times reporting?

It’s not like the official policy doesn’t reflect this concern:

In any situation when we cite anonymous sources, at least some readers may suspect that the newspaper is being used to convey tainted information or special pleading. If the impetus for anonymity has originated with the source, further reporting is essential to satisfy the reporter and the reader that the paper has sought the whole story.

Can you please ask Sorkin’s editors how the story passed that bar? How else can you characterize the quoted conversation–other than “special pleading”? Isn’t the real story here the level of concern among “CEO(s) of major banks” about the demonstration? Wouldn’t the proper journalistic response be to call up the other CEOs and ask them about their level of concern? And get them on the record?

The hilarity continues:

Confidential sources must have direct knowledge of the information they are giving us — or they must be the authorized representatives of an authority, known to us, who has such knowledge.
We do not grant anonymity to people who are engaged in speculation, unless the very act of speculating is newsworthy and can be clearly labeled for what it is.

In this case, the source is engaging in information-free speculation–is he in danger from those people? He needs to know, and sends Sorkin off to engage in his own speculation, based on what information he can gather on the source’s behalf.

At the very least, could you please ask Sorkin’s editors why this source is anonymous, and to ask Sorkin to stop embarrassing the paper by flouting its anonymity rules? I really do think there is a story here as well–just as there was a Jayson Blair story and a Judith Miller story. Maybe one of your more journalistic business reporters, like Gretchen Morgenson, could take a crack at it.


October 3, 2011

I write letters.  To the public editor, regarding Michael Cooper’s he said/she said article today on Republican voter suppression:

Michael Cooper’s article on new state voting laws (filed in the “politics” sub-section of the US section of the website, and IIRC on the front page of my subscription edition of the TImes) is a pretty stunning example of really bad “he said, she said” journalism. Consider the fifth paragraph:

Republicans, who have passed almost all of the new election laws, say they are necessary to prevent voter fraud, and question why photo identification should be routinely required at airports but not at polling sites. Democrats counter that the new laws are a solution in search of a problem, since voter fraud is rare. They worry that the laws will discourage, or even block, eligible voters — especially poor voters, young voters and African-American voters, who tend to vote for Democrats.

And also consider the lede:

Since Republicans won control of many statehouses last November, more than a dozen states have passed laws requiring voters to show photo identification at polls, cutting back early voting periods or imposing new restrictions on voter registration drives.

There isn’t a question of opinion or ideology here. These are questions of fact. Is it true that voter fraud can be prevented by requiring photo IDs at the time of voting, reducing the length of time balloting is open or making it harder for people to register? Is there any evidence, at all, that what the Republicans are saying to justify suppressing turnout is actually true? The rest of the article goes on to point out that the effect, the intended effect, of these measures is to suppress voter turnout among groups that tend to vote for Democrats. How can Michael Cooper, or his editors, write this up as “GOP says fraud” while “Dems say there is no fraud” and then leave it there?

The one actual quotation from someone who favors suppressing Democratic votes concedes there is no fraud taking place that is within 4 orders of magnitude of the planned suppression:

“The left always says that people who are in favor of this claim there is massive fraud,” said Mr. von Spakovsky, of the Heritage Foundation. “No, I don’t say that. I don’t think anybody else says that there is massive fraud in American elections. But there are enough proven cases in the past, throughout our history and recently, that show that you’ve got to take basic steps to prevent people from taking advantage of an election if they want to. Particularly close elections.”

In the first place, the suppression effort IS massive.  According to the article, it is meant to reduce turnout in the high hundreds of thousands to millions. If there is no massive fraud, then why does von Spakovsky support a massive effort to prevent citizens from exercising their right to franchise. Moreover, where is Michael Cooper here? Where are the questions: “What history? What recent events? How many instances of fraud, and of what magnitude? Can you document even a dozen cases of fraud caused by early voting, registration drives, or the absence of ID?”

The republicans are engaging in blatant attempts to suppress Democratic voters. This is newsworthy! It needs to be reported accurately, using actual facts, instead of presenting obviously disprovable lies as possibly valid.


September 21, 2011

I hate the corporate income tax.  I hate it for a number of reasons, which I hope to post here over the next week or two.

The first reason I hate the tax is because it is hard to determine who, in the end, pays the tax. Economists call the distribution of the burden of a tax its incidence. Economists prefer taxes with a clear burden; public policy objectives can be inadvertently distorted if the distribution of a tax is not well understood.  The incidence is not necessarily apparent. Many economists believe, for instance, that the division of the payroll tax into an employee and an employer share doesn’t accomplish its end–of putting half the burden on the employer.  The employer doesn’t calculate his pay offer based on the base number. He or she calculates total compensation, including benefits and the payroll tax, and makes the pay offer accordingly.

In comparison, the corporate income tax represents a nightmarish problem of determining incidence.  The tax is aimed at the shareholders of the corporation, but depending on the price elasticities in both the product and the labor markets, the tax may be shifted to either workers or consumers.  The corporation’s goal is maximizing after tax profits.  Doing so may involve both evading/avoiding the tax, and attempting to shift the burden onto either consumers of their products (through price increases) or their employees (through wage cuts).

If a product is highly price inelastic–that is, if consumers are not sensitive to price increases–and the industry concentrated, tacit pricing agreements shift the burden of the tax to consumers. Tobacco is an obvious example. Likewise, if labor markets are slack, the corporate income tax burden can be shifted onto workers, in the form of lower wages or reduced benefits.

If the intention is to tax capital holders, then it makes sense to use a tax that does so more directly.  For instance, a stock transaction tax would be very difficult to shift onto any group other than stockholders.

In the end, though, Mitt Romney was right. Corporations may not actually be people, but in the end, corporations don’t pay taxes, people pay taxes. The trouble with the corporate income tax is that it’s hard to figure out who those people are.


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